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Planning a PhD: Setting SMART Objectives

written by: Profacgillies•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 4/16/2010

Once you have got a refine research question or aim, the next step in planning a PhD is to set clear objectives. Once again, we shall use the SMART acronym to define objectives, but also show how your objectives can structure your whole proposal

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    The Difference Between Aims and Objectives

    It is important to distinguish your objectives from your research aim. To me, the research aim is a single overall statement of your purpose, which may be expressed as a research question or a statement. The objectives describe a series of tasks which, if completed would enable the aim to be met. Put another way, the aim says why you are doing the things you are doing, it is your purpose. Objectives tell us what you are going to do to achieve that purpose.

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    Planning a PhD: Setting SMART Objectives

    If you have read my previous article in this series, then you will be familiar with the SMART acronym as applied to the research question. I apply it slightly differently when considering the research goals.

    A specific research objective must not only be precisely defined, but it must deliver a specific component of the final PhD.

    A measurable objective is one that can be demonstrated to have delivered its specified component

    An achievable objective is a component of an achievable whole: it only takes one objective to be unachievable for the whole PhD to fail.

    The relevance criteria of an objective defines the scope of that component of the study. All activity must be relevant to at least one objective, or it should be abandoned. One of the most significant risks to a PhD is following a red herring into a cul de sac. During the study you need to use your objectives to ask yourself "Is this a relevant activity?" If not, Stop. At once!

    Objectives should be mapped onto specific phases of activity all of which should be time limited with a start and stop date. Some of these will run in parallel, some may even run throughout the project. For example, literature review is an activity which will have an intense initial phase, followed by an ongoing monitoring phase for new literature, and then finally a check before submission to make sure you have not missed something really important.

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    Planning a PhD: Sample SMART Objectives

    Many PhDs will have a set of objectives which are based upon surprisingly generic elements. They may look something like this:

    1. To define and plan the project
    2. To identify and review the current state of prior literature
    3. To design a robust study to answer the research question
    4. To collect all the data needed to answer the research question using the developed study design
    5. To derive and present the results of the study from the data collected
    6. To analyse the results of the study in the light of prior knowledge
    7. To draw conclusions about the contribution to knowledge made by the study which may be concerned with the problem under investigation, the methods deployed or the student as researcher
    8. To provide a complete and accurate record of the material used in the study, cited consistently according to a recognised system.

    Obviously, these will need to be made more specific for any particular study and will need tweaking for different fields of study. For example, Philosophy PhDs may collect no data at all. Social science PhDs will tend to emphasise the methodology component and make greater use of qualitative data than the physical sciences.

    However, this broad set of objectives provides a good starting point for most PhDs, and also provides an outline chapter structure for a final thesis, although, some objectives may lead to multiple chapters in a final thesis document. If your objectives don't cover what these objectives cover, and I was examining your thesis, I would at least be asking "Why not?"

How to do a PhD research

This is a step by step guide on how to map out your PhD Research
  1. Getting Successful Results : How to Outline a PhD Research Proposal
  2. Planning a PhD: Setting SMART Objectives